KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Three straight finishes outside the top 10 for Denny Hamlin these days counts as a rough patch.
He was once again as smooth as they get Thursday night.
The Manchester High School graduate remained near the front of the pack all night, avoiding trouble that cost several playoff contenders in the final stage, then breezed past Kevin Harvick for the lead in the closing laps. Hamlin then held off charging Brad Keselowski for his NASCAR Cup Series-leading fifth victory of the season and 42nd overall. He also won for the second straight time at Kansas Speedway.
“I don’t know we had the best car. We definitely had a top-three car all day,” Hamlin said after his burnout in front of the empty grandstands. “We just went for it there at the end. The pit crew did an amazing job getting us out there in front.”
Hamlin had struggled the past three weeks, failing to finish better than 12th. But after showing good speed early, his Joe Gibbs Racing team made all the right calls during a crash-filled final stage. Keselowski finished second and Martin Truex Jr. came across third. Harvick wound up sliding to fourth and Erik Jones capped a big day for the Gibbs boys in fifth.
William Byron led the race as he chased his first career win, but he slid backward after a late caution and finished 10th. Alex Bowman also made a charge to the lead but finished behind Aric Almirola and Cole Custer in eighth.
The youngsters wound up leaving it to the veterans to battle it out over the final laps.
“We got to the lead but we just went dead sideways after about four or five laps,” said Harvick, who had been tied with Hamlin with four wins. “We were just holding on hoping for another restart, because we could hang for a couple laps.”
Truex may have had the fastest car on the track by the end of the night, which began with temperatures in the mid-90s and a heat index approaching triple digits. But he ran out of time trying chase down his teammate.
“It would have been difficult to pass him,” Truex said about Hamlin. “It was a battle all night just to get track position. These things are so difficult in traffic. You lose a few more spots than you hope on a restart and you just have to dig.”
Joey Logano led early before his night ended in disaster — and took some playoff contenders with him.
His problems began when a tire got loose on pit road during the first stage, sending him to the back. He was working his way forward early in the final stage when his left front tire went down, sending Logano into the outside wall. Matt DiBenedetto and Jimmie Johnson, the last two drivers on the good side of the playoff cut line, sustained heavy damage as the field checked up. So did Austin Dillon, who was the surprise winner last weekend at Texas.
“I’m pretty freaking irritated. We’ve had garbage luck the last few weeks,” DiBenedetto said. “We have no horsepower. It takes us 45 minutes to get going. The restarts as just wild. But that’s what is happening.”
Logano said he felt his tire going down just before green but thought “it wasn’t bad.”
“Maybe it was bad judgment on my part,” Logano said, “and I didn’t want to lose any track position for something that wasn’t bad. It’s one of those judgment calls. I just feel bad for everyone else.”
Another wreck during the next always-chaotic Kansas restart collected Ryan Preece, Chris Buescher, Ryan Newman and Christopher Bell. Preece hit the inside wall with such force that his car flew several feet into the air.
It would have been an exciting show for fans if there was any. After about 20,000 wore masks and braved stifling heat in Texas, the grandstands were again empty at Kansas. Soaring numbers of positive COVID-19 tests forced speedway officials to run this weekend — including upcoming races in the Xfinity, Truck and ARCA series — without any fans.
The next race at New Hampshire can have about 19,000 fans. The following doubleheader at Michigan will not have any.
Kyle Busch finally had something go right during his frustrating season. The defending series champ, whose only win in his last 41 starts in the Cup Series came in last year’s finale, held off Hamlin and Truex to win his first stage this year.
It was another race between teammates on Stage 2. This time, it was Keselowski getting around Team Penske teammate Ryan Blaney — who was dominant at Texas but failed to win — on the penultimate lap to take the stage.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s challenging year continued when he went to the garage early with a mechanical problem. It also was a rough night for Bubba Wallace, who spun early in the race coming out of Turn 4 and then plowed into Matt Kenseth when he spun in the middle of the same turn early in the final stage.
“We’ve had some really bad weeks,” Stenhouse said. “Lost the balance a little bit but felt like we were pretty close. But I don’t know, a fire started in the cockpit. Something electrical in the dash.”
(Start position in parentheses)
1. (10) Denny Hamlin, Toyota, 267 laps
2. (7) Brad Keselowski, Ford, 267
3. (5) Martin Truex Jr, Toyota, 267
4. (1) Kevin Harvick, Ford, 267
5. (21) Erik Jones, Toyota, 267
6. (3) Aric Almirola, Ford, 267
7. (24) Cole Custer, Ford, 267
8. (6) Alex Bowman, Chevy, 267
9. (9) Kurt Busch, Chevy, 267
10. (15) William Byron, Chevy, 267
11. (8) Kyle Busch, Toyota, 267
12. (11) Chase Elliott, Chevy, 267
13. (23) Tyler Reddick, Chevy, 267
14. (19) Clint Bowyer, Ford, 267
15. (36) Ty Dillon, Chevy, 267
16. (27) Michael McDowell, Ford, 267
17. (14) Matt Kenseth, Chevy, 267
18. (37) Daniel Suarez, Toyota, 267
19. (30) John H. Nemechek, Ford, 266
20. (4) Ryan Blaney, Ford, 266
21. (31) Corey Lajoie, Ford, 266
22. (28) JJ Yeley, Ford, 265
23. (22) Christopher Bell, Toyota, 264
24. (32) Quin Houff, Chevy, 260
25. (33) Josh Bilicki, Chevy, 260
26. (26) Garrett Smithley, Chevy, 260
27. (16) Austin Dillon, Chevy, 251
28. (18) Ryan Newman, Ford, 251
29. (34) Joey Gase, Chevy, 251
30. (29) Brennan Poole, Chevy, 219
31. (39) el-Reed Sorenson, Chevy, 216
32. (20) g-Jimmie Johnson, Chevy, 200
33. (13) a-Chris Buescher, Ford, 182
34. (35) a-Ryan Preece, Chevy, 181
35. (2) a-Joey Logano, Ford, 176
36. (12) a-Matt DiBenedetto, Ford, 175
37. (17) a-Bubba Wallace, Chevy, 170
38. (38) el-Timmy Hill, Toyota, 116
39. (40) r-BJ McLeod, Ford, 66
40. (25) el.Ricky Stenhouse Jr, Chevy, 58
Reason out: a-accident; el-electrical; g-garage; r-rear gear
Stage winners: Kyle Busch (first), Keselowski (second)
Average speed: 121.832 mph; Time: 3 hours, 17 minutes, 14 seconds; Margin of victory: .510 seconds; Cautions: 11 for 47 laps; Lead changes: 21 among 9 drivers
Lap leaders: Logano 1-27; Truex 28-30; Kyle Busch 31-82; Hamlin 83-96; Truex 97-101; Keselowski 102-104; Truex 105-106; Keselowski 107-114; Truex 115-144; Blaney 145-158; Keselowski 159-162; Blaney 163; Hamlin 164-192; Truex 193-196; Byron 197-199; Hamlin 200; Byron 201-205; Keselowski 206-220; Byron 221-239; Bowman 240-245; Harvick 246-254; Hamlin 255-267
Leaders summary (driver, times led, laps led): Hamlin 4 times for 57 laps; Kyle Busch 1 time for 52 laps; Truex 5 times for 44 laps; Keselowski 4 times for 30 laps; Byron 3 times for 27 laps; Logano 1 time for 27 laps; Blaney 2 times for 15 laps; Harvick 1 time for 9 laps; Bowman 1 time for 6 laps
Wins: Hamlin 5; Harvick 4; Keselowski 2; Logano 2; Blaney 1; Elliott 1; Truex 1; Bowman 1; ADillon 1; Custer 1
Points: 1. Harvick 763; 2. Keselowski 666; 3. Blaney 663; 4. Hamlin 634; 5. Elliott 630; 6. Logano 609; 7. Truex 602; 8. Almirola 576; 9. Kyle Busch 562; 10. Kurt Busch 561; 11. Bowman 539; 12. Bowyer 484; 13. DiBenedetto 477; 14. Byron 452; 15. Reddick 442; 16. Jones 440